In a quiet studio at Sadler’s Wells theatre, three dancers in black leggings are making purposeful angles with their bodies in some pretty leftfield contemporary dance moves. One looks familiar: lean and muscular, a tattoo of a flaming phoenix between her shoulder blades, a Celtic band around her arm. She bends forward and one leg sweeps high into the air behind her. It’s Melanie Chisholm, AKA Mel C, AKA Sporty Spice, rehearsing with the choreographer Jules Cunningham.
Chisholm is known for conquering the world with girl power and karate kicks in the late 1990s. She has ridden the giddy highs of global superstardom (as part of the bestselling girl group of all time) and the lows (media pillorying, band breakup, anorexia, depression). Meanwhile, Cunningham is known for unshowy, uncommercial choreography that draws keen but modest audiences. Yet here they are together, with dancer Harry Alexander, rehearsing for a new show called How Did We Get Here?
It’s a good question. Why did Cunningham want to work with Chisholm? “Ooh, I don’t know this, I’m all ears,” says Chisholm with a wicked grin, pulling up a chair in the dressing room next to the others. “Um…” says Cunningham, almost in a whisper, the mood somewhere between embarrassment and hilarity. “Me and Harry used to talk about it a lot, for a couple of years, in a dreamy way.” Cunningham looks at Chisholm. “You were always the best dancer.” The idea then popped out of Cunningham’s mouth during a chat with Sadler’s Wells director Alistair Spalding. “And the next thing you know,” says Chisholm, “we were having a cup of tea.”
Dance was Chisholm’s first passion; she won competitions around Merseyside long before she picked up a microphone. The three performers in How Did We Get Here? bonded over their similar backgrounds: going to local dance schools, learning the same steps. Alexander trained at the same performing arts school as Chisholm, Bird College. Cunningham, who at 43 is six years younger than Chisholm, grew up less than half an hour away: “When I was 16, it was inspiring that somebody who grew up near me was doing what she was doing. I could imagine myself beyond where I was.”
They took very different paths, but they’ve all landed here. The piece grew from noticing what was happening in the studio says Cunningham. “Not just how we were dancing but how we were being together. I think all of us had a really hard year and we’re letting all that be in the piece: when we had a cry, when we picked someone up saying, ‘It’s going to be OK.’”
The choreography I watch is built on stark lines and slow, fiendish balances, but sometimes the trio lean into or hold on to each other, as if saying, “I’ve got you.” It’s all a subtle but touching demonstration of trust and support.
“This piece is so fucking moving,” says Chisholm. “When you work with the body it can be quite intense,” adds Cunningham. “It brings things up. Everything in your life is present in your body – the body keeps the score – all of us have a really unique experience.” Instead of pushing that away to put on an idealised front, Cunningham advises, just be with it. “That’s what people can connect to – you don’t want to be a robot.”
It’s interesting Cunningham uses the word robot, because in Chisholm’s autobiography, Who I Am, going into “robot mode” is how she describes her coping strategy at the height of Spicemania, struggling with disordered eating, obsessing over thinness and exercise, constant criticism in the press and a crazy work schedule. She talks eloquently about the links between body and mind, how dance offered an escape when her parents split up, trying to feel invincible physically in order to feel the same emotionally. “There are so many things we don’t have the courage to talk about, face to face. I’m quite quiet. I’m easygoing. I’m a people pleaser. So for me to have a physical outlet to express those emotions was a really healthy thing.”
There’s no dramatic emoting in Cunningham’s choreography: it’s more restrained, but when you look closer it’s full of tenderness. Chisholm is incredulous about the level of detail. “Every production I do has an incredible amount of thought, but this is literally – wow! – about why every finger moves. I’ve had to become more patient. In the commercial world I inhabit, everything has to be done quickly. This has been a good exercise for me and it’s really paid off.”
She goes on: “I’m new to contemporary dance and I shied away from even coming to watch it, because I thought it would be intimidating and I wouldn’t understand what was going on. But it’s like when I write a song: people get different things from it. You make it relevant to your own life. Just come with an open mind and it will make you think. And hopefully shed a few tears.”
It’s going to be an intimate experience: stage set up in the round, the audience close up, nowhere to hide. That’s a lot of pressure. “There’s been times throughout this where I’ve felt, ‘What am I doing? I don’t need to be putting myself through this!’” But Chisholm is proud to be repping for middle-aged women everywhere. “In the media and entertainment, women of a certain age were hidden away. But now it’s like, ‘Check me out!’ It’s really liberating. I want to inspire other people.”
Chisholm is glowing: she seems very together, very in control. As Cunningham says, “Mel has such a strong physical presence” and she’s sportier than ever, whether that is triathlon or weight training. “For the Spice shows in 2019,” she says, “I wanted to look like a superhero. I wanted to be uber-Sporty. I’ve made so much peace with my body.”
Chisholm has been doing the promo rounds for this show, encouraging people to take a punt on contemporary dance, but it turns out all anyone wants to ask is whether the Spice Girls are going to reform for Glastonbury this summer. So has Emily Eavis called yet? “It’s the question I hate the most, because the answer is as disappointing to me as it is to Spice Girls fans,” she says. “We would love to do Glasto. It just doesn’t fit with the current plan with the girls. We do want to get back on stage – everything is up in the air.”
When the band last reformed it was without Victoria Beckham, AKA Posh Spice, who decided she’d had enough of dealing with the pressure of performing. What would it take to persuade her? “She hung up her dancing shoes after the Olympics in 2012,” says Chisholm. “Of course we had incredible stadium shows in 2019.” This was the Spice World tour. “And you know, there’s definitely a bit of fomo for her, so I’m a big optimist. We were all at Geri’s 50th a couple of months back and Victoria was the first one on the dance floor requesting Spice Girls songs.”
The other reason Chisholm’s been in the news recently is because she pulled out of a gig in Poland on New Year’s Eve when social media brought to her attention the country’s poor record on LGBTQ+ rights. Chisholm’s a vocal ally of the community and was Attitude magazine’s “Honorary Gay” of 2022. “I’ve never seen myself as an outspoken political artist,” she says. “This is the first time I’ve felt I have to stand up and say my piece. Great strides are being taken forwards in so many places. Unfortunately, in some places it feels like things are going backwards.”
Of course, it’s been pointed out that she has played plenty of gigs in places that don’t have a great record on human rights. “I was actually criticised by an MEP on Twitter for playing in Russia 22 years ago!” she says. But politics just wasn’t on her radar back then. So is this a turning point? “I think it is, for all of us. I’m not always going to get it right, but part of being an ally is that you ask questions and you make mistakes and you learn from them. And I’m sure I will make more mistakes.”
Chisholm has to dash out for a costume fitting. “Just tried on my catsuit. I look like a hot mama,” she says, then adds: “I talk too much anyway. I’m hogging the limelight.” She eyes her fellow dancers and, referring to our chat, says: “Just getting you back for next week when you two pull focus.” They all giggle. Cunningham and Alexander are indeed impressive to watch, but there’ll be a lot of eyes on Sporty, from her fans and her friends. “I’ve got to do my guest list this weekend,” she says. “There’s been big interest.” Hooting with laughter, she adds: “Oi Ginger! You can buy your own tickets!”